WASHINGTON — The chair between Reps. Jeff Flake and Raul Grijalva stood empty at last year's State of the Union address, reserved for their colleague, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. They could hardly have imagined that just one year later she would actually be able to join them one more time.
The two Arizona lawmakers said it was an emotional ride watching Giffords enter the House for only the second time since she was shot in the head last January and just one day before she tenders her resignation so that she can focus on her recovery.
"There was a bit of sadness, but it was kind of uplifting to see what this young woman has done to get herself where she is now. I have nothing but admiration for what's she's done," said Grijalva, a Democratic lawmaker who represents an adjacent congressional district in Southern Arizona.
Giffords was greeted with cheers of "Gabby, Gabby" from many of her colleagues after entering the House chamber. Flake watched as Supreme Court justices, cabinet members and President Barack Obama greeted her. Obama gave Giffords a long embrace and the two swayed from side to side as they hugged.
"It was just a very special experience to be there," said Flake, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate seat that Giffords may have challenged him for had she not been wounded. "Knowing what she has gone through, it's just incredibly special. We all know she has given 100 percent."
Limping a little, Giffords beamed around the chamber and raised her left hand to wave. Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, approached with two bags of chocolate, which Giffords took, grinning.
She looked to the gallery to wave at her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly. When First Lady Michelle Obama took her seat next to him, she waved, too.
She has inspired gestures of bipartisanship. Last year, in the tender days after the shooting, members of both parties sat together across the chamber, rather than Democrats to the president's right and Republicans to his left. Many lawmakers did the same this year.
Throughout the speech, Flake, sitting at Giffords' side, repeatedly helped her stand as her fellow Democrats applauded Obama. Grijalva said he sensed that she was getting tired toward the end of the night.
Giffords' presence may be the only element about the event above politics.
Obama used the highest-profile pulpit in the land to reclaim the spotlight from Republicans battling for the right to face him in the general election. He was speaking to a Congress cranky after a year of the bitterest partisan fighting in recent memory.
But the political subtext seems trivial compared with the wrenching journey Giffords has traveled from the shooting a year ago in Tucson to the House chamber Tuesday night. The shootings left six dead, Giffords recovering from a bullet wound to the head and 12 others injured.
She has since regained a halting ability to speak and walk on her own. She was so disgusted about the way Congress was handling the debate over whether to raise the nation's debt ceiling in August that she made a surprise appearance in the House chamber to cast her vote.
Giffords earned a reputation as someone who tried to reach common ground with her opponents. Grijalva said that even she would have struggled over the past year.
"One of her wonderful legacies is she tried to build consensus. With the emergence of the tea party in the House, she herself would have found it difficult to gain consensus," Grijalva said.
Still, Flake said he believes her example had helped lawmakers to strive to work together more, at least within the Arizona delegation.
Giffords will vote on one last bill, a measure she co-authored to impose tougher penalties on smugglers who use small, low-flying aircraft to avoid radar detection and bring drugs across the Mexican border.
Her office said in a press release that she will then submit her resignation letter.
Giffords' ends her resignation letter with the words: "Every day I am working hard. I will recover and will return and we will work together again for Arizona and for all Americans."
Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.